Why Photographs Work:

52 Great Images: Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why

by George Barr

© 2010 Rocky Nook

$39.95 French flapped softcover

I came upon a remarkable book that every photographer, especially those who want to nurture their artistic side as a complement to their paying work.

Photographers look for inspiration, and often they turn to the pantheon of great photographers to find it. They look to Lange, Cartier-Bresson, Steichen, Adams and others and examine the rich histories of those photographers and their bodies of work.

George Barr takes a different and refreshing approach. He chooses not just 52 photographers, but 52 photographs (cards in a deck? weeks in a year?), each from a different shooter. His makes his central aim showing why photographs work, not how photographers work, though photographic process certainly plays a role. Largely, the artists are not household names, but all have solid reputations and fine work.

The structure of the book is deceptively simple. Each chapter begins with a gorgeously reproduced photograph, and its text begins with Barr’s critique of the photograph. The photographers then offer their thoughts on the photograph, encompassing their experience identifying the scene, imagining the image, and making the photograph. A brief biography and portrait of the shooter caps each section.

Photography at its core is learning to battle constraints and solve problems. To create a book like this, one must use living photographers, and to sustain interest and narrative, assemble a wide variety of images.

This he accomplishes admirably, bringing together portraits, landscapes, still life, abstracts, architecture, closeups, documentary, and panoramic images taken with everything from large format cameras to mobile phones, on film and from digital sensors, processed as traditional color and black & white, as infrared, and via alternative processes, with and without obvious manipulation.

By juxtaposing the observer’s comments and the photographer’s thoughts, he reinforces the theme of the book, that photographs work for a number of reasons, but all of them come down to how skilfully an image maker conveys his or her experience and vision to the viewer.

“If the best thing you can say about a photograph is that it is superbly composed, then the image has failed.”

“If a photograph tells you all and leaves nothing to the imagination, it may be a good photograph, but there isn’t a lot of reason to revisit it.”

The first statement appears in the opening chapter and becomes the initial strand in a thread that continues throughout the work. The second forms one of the last stitches in the book’s fabric. Barr insists that remarkable photographs set themselves apart because they combine technical brilliance with a rich understanding of the medium and a deep connection with the subject. He not only dismisses as unremarkable those images that are too studiously composed, but also ones that rely solely on exoticism (colorful travel pictures from remote countries, for instance) or sentimentality, or which simply derive from the work of more inspired photographers.

He draws a lesson from each image by analyzing the artistic and technical elements that allow it to shine. He teaches about the effective use of light, natural, artificial, and modified, the photographer’s skill in handling the tools of the trade, the shooter’s eye, and the importance of a continual path of learning and growth.  When combined with the photographer’s own story of the image and the brief biographies with technical notes, the reader leaves with a complete understanding of all the circumstances that make a great image.

This book will appeal to enthusiast photographers who want to go beyond the basic camera club critiques – find leading lines, use the rule of thirds, control depth of field, expose carefully, etc. – and see how superb technique can combine with inspiration to create memorable images.

For the accomplished or professional photographer, Barr offers a survey of contemporary photography that reveals the variety and quality of work that can be done in almost any genre.

Like any tome with this many entries, some chapters will appeal more than others. The formula does not work for all images, and every reader will have a different taste in images. At the end of the day, however, I feel that fewer, longer chapters would have become pedantic. even academic. By keeping the critiques short, Barr avoids the leaden over-analysis that ruins most photography criticism This is book about photos, not theory, and it largely succeeds. If one chapter falls flat, move to the next, there are plenty.

Definitely worth its reasonable price tag, it will not simply be retired from the coffee table to the bookshelf, but lent, shared, and re-sampled for years.